Harkin Letting Loose as Retirement Nears

‘We had 60 votes for the public option and we let it slip away’


Sen. Tom Harkin is not going quiet into that good night. The Iowa Democrat stopped by Steve and Diane Hamilton’s Casino Beach home at Storm Lake, Iowa, recently to lunch with local Democrats, few in number but strong in their affection for Harkin, for what Steve called the senator’s Victory Tour.

It sounds as if Harkin’s tongue is loosening as he nears retirement.

“You know, I am not very happy with President Obama right now,” Harkin told me during an interview after a delicious pork and beef lunch cooked by Mark Snyder.

Recently, Harkin roiled the waters when he said he did not understand how the President could delay for a year the mandate that large employers offer health insurance to their workers. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney suggested that Harkin is “willfully ignorant about past precedent.”

“I may be ignorant, but not willfully so,” Harkin retorted.

The chairman of Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) said he supports the Affordable Care Act (he does not call it Obamacare) and wants to be a good team player, but …

“We had 60 votes for the public option.”

Just to make sure I heard him the first time, he repeated.

“I’m telling you, we had 60 votes for the public option. We had a majority in the House. (Speaker) Pelosi was ready to go. Never again in your lifetime or mine will we have a super-majority in the Senate, a strong majority in the House and control of the White House,” Harkin told me. “And we had 60 votes for the public option and we let it slip away.”

At the time, in fall of 2009, Harkin urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring a government-sponsored health insurance option to the floor for a vote. At the direction of the White House, Reid demurred to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and his Ranking Member, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to sit on the public option.

So it went that Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield can maintain its effective monopoly in Iowa, such to the point that it is ignoring the Iowa health insurance exchange that is supposed to be operating by 2014. Wellmark said it is considering offering plans on the Iowa exchange in 2015.

Harkin said the closest we may come to a public option are cooperative health insurers that will offer plans on the exchanges. One of four nationally is headquartered in Iowa, founded by former Iowa Insurance Commissioner David Lyon.

“Those cooperatives could morph into the public option,” Harkin said.

Later in the day, Harkin went down to Des Moines to urge the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement to raise a little hell — as if CCI ever needed a spark. Several members went out and protested in prominent Des Moines Republican David Oman’s yard.

He sounded more like the fiery Tom Harkin who was elected to the House in the post-Watergate wave in 1974 that also vaulted Berkley Bedell to Congress. A chairmanship tends to rein in the maverick. The shackles are coming unhinged.

Because, like Grassley, he vanquished all challengers, Harkin generates intense loyalty among progressives. He touched them in farewell remarks on a steamy day along the lakeshore.

“I love my job. I love being a senator. I love representing Iowa,” Harkin said. “But I’m 73, folks. I need to take time to narrow down the things I want to work on. Too many people hang onto power too long. I wanted to go out before they haul me out drooling.”

He said he wants to work on the Harkin Policy Institute at Drake University in Des Moines. He wants to work on helping disabled people get jobs — he authored the Americans with Disabilities Act, the greatest civil rights achievement since the Voting Rights Act.

And there are all sorts of education matters lower and higher that demand his immediate attention.

No doubt, he will campaign like the dickens for his heir apparent, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo.

He will spend more time with his three grandchildren and wax philosophical, as he did for his old friends gathered that Saturday.

“Ferris Bueller is my favorite philosopher,” he said. “He said that life is pretty short, and if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile you’re gonna miss it.”

He went on, unscripted:

“Sure, we have problems. But there’s still no place like this. You wanna live in Egypt? Go for it. So okay, we got problems. But as we work through them, we must do it in ways that leave the ladder down for poor kids like me, the son of an immigrant.”

His father was an Irish coal miner at Cumming. His mother was an immigrant from Slovakia. Harkin hitchhiked so he could attend Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines. And he rose to the very top of American political life.

He helped create the Storm Lake Watershed Program. He raked in millions of dollars for Buena Vista University. He directed with Diane Hamilton the creation of the United Community Health Center. He mined money for lake dredging.

“Too bad we lost those earmarks. We could have done a lot more good here. You know, I love Buena Vista University. It’s a great private school. And look at this lake. What a place.”

He looked through the telescope on the observatory deck over Little Storm Lake.

“There’s an osprey,” he said. “And did you know that the new wind turbines they’re building put out twice the power that these do? We could do so much more here.”

Harkin would not have been in Storm Lake — he probably would not have done what he did for Storm Lake — were it not for Diane Hamilton. She will miss him terribly. And she already has booked Aug. 24 for a Bruce Braley fundraiser.

Time and progressives move on but you get the feeling you will hear more from Harkin as his retirement nears.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Iowa, where this appeared.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013



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